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Juliette Gordon Low: Girl Scouts Founder

Kathy Cabrera
March 19, 2012
Filed under Feature Stories

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Juliette Gordon Low

Juliette Gordon Low

Mention the Girl Scouts today and an image of young and teenaged girls selling their famous cookies door-to-door, taking part in outdoor activities like camping and hiking, or doing volunteer work in their communities comes to mind. While these are indeed accurate depictions, many people may be surprised to learn the effect that Girl Scouts have had for nearly a century on women’s history and history at large. The story starts with a woman by the name of Juliette Gordon Low, who found a purpose worth dedicating her life to when she initiated the Girl Scout movement in the United States in 1912.

Juliette Gordon Low, whose forward thinking brought girls of all backgrounds into the outdoors, gave them the opportunity to develop skills like self-reliance and resourcefulness in a time when women in this country did not have the right to vote. Low’s own ability to persevere through such personal hardships as a significant loss of hearing, separation from her husband and then later being widowed, inspired girls in the organization to do the same. She encouraged girls to prepare not only for traditional homemaking, but also for possible future roles as professional women in the arts, sciences and business, and for active citizenship outside the home.

The multi-faceted developmental experience Girl Scouts continues to provide its members can be credited to the diversity of talents and variety of life experiences its founder had. Born Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon on October 31, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia, Low was nicknamed “Daisy” by family and friends. Family members on her father’s side were early settlers in Georgia, and her mother’s family played an important role in the founding of Chicago, Illinois.

Growing up in Savannah, Juliette Low developed an interest in a variety of arts, from writing poems and plays to painting and sculpting. The athletic and outdoors component to so many Girl Scouts activities are also rooted in Low’s talents. She was a strong swimmer, captain of a rowing team as a young girl, later enjoyed canoeing as an adult, and was skilled at tennis.

Juliette Gordon Low was educated at prestigious schools in Virginia and New York, and traveled extensively in the United States and Europe. She married William Mackay Low, a wealthy Englishman, in 1886. While settling with her husband in England, Low continued her travels and divided her time between the British Isles and America. Juliette Low suffered chronic ear infections, and lost most of the hearing in one ear after improper treatment, then lost hearing in her other ear after a grain of rice thrown at her wedding punctured her eardrum and resulted in infection.

During the Spanish-American War of 1898, Low came back to America to aid in the war effort. She helped her mother organize a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers returning from combat in Cuba. At the end of the war, Juliette Low returned to England and to a disintegrating marriage. At the time of her husband’s death in 1905 the Lows were separated.

In 1911, Juliette Gordon Low had a meeting with Sir Robert Baden-Powell that would prove to be momentous for millions of women over the course of the next 100 years. Low became interested in Powell’s youth movement, the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, and upon returning to the United States less than a year later on March 12, 1912, had a history-making telephone call with a friend saying:

“I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight!”

Soon after, Juliette Low gathered 18 girls to register the first troop of American Girl Guides. Margaret “Daisy Doots” Gordon, her niece and namesake, was the first registered member. The name of the organization was changed to Girl Scouts the following year.

Juliette Low later suffered from breast cancer and passed away in 1927. She was buried wearing her Girl Scouts uniform in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah. While the Girl Scouts movement was only 15 years in the making at the time of Low’s death, her forward thinking and modern perspective formed the foundation of the organization. From the original 18 girls, Girl Scouts has grown to 3.2 million members. The largest educational organization for girls in the world, Girl Scouts has influenced more than 50 million girls, women and men who have belonged to it.

PHOTO: Girl Scout National Historic Preservation Center

Girl Scouts have a meal by the campfire served by their troop leaders, circa 1917.

Beyond influencing millions, the organization has also impacted history through its members, calling upon young women to contribute to the improvement of society through their abilities, leadership skills, and cooperation with others. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Girl Scouts led community relief efforts. They also sponsored Defense Institutes, which taught 10,000 women survival skills and techniques for comforting children during blackouts and air raids during World War II in the 1940s. The organization’s mission and spirit of generosity remains unchanged in the new millennium. Encouraged by former President George W. Bush, Girl Scouts donated a personal gift of $1 each to help support children in Afghanistan in 2001. And, following the worst earthquake in Japan’s history in March 2011, one particular Girl Scout Troop in Whitesville, New York, folded 1,000 origami cranes, a symbol of hope and world peace. The troop sold the paper cranes to raise relief funds to send to Japan.

The organization’s centennial is in 2012 and the positive influence it has on women by encouraging among many things — activities in the outdoors — will only continue to grow. Building on the strong legacy of an iconic woman truly ahead of her time, this next century will be the most exciting era for Girl Scouts.

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